Exactly how the news spread throughout the household, Frederica couldn't have said. There was no doubt it had, however, when the tea tray was wheeled in bearing the best china and three types of biscuits. She observed the macaroons with faint surprise; as far as she knew, no one in the household liked them. Next to the trolley, Mrs Hurley beamed in delight and bobbed a curtsey.
"We make so bold as to wish you very happy, ma'am," she said. Buddle merely smiled in a gentle, fatherly way, and Frederica was annoyed with herself for blushing. She supposed the congratulations of her household were the least she would have to face in the coming days. If Charles Trevor and Cousin Elizabeth were anything to go by, the announcement of their engagement would be regarded as merely confirming the inevitable.
She thanked them gratefully, and was even more grateful when they left her with the tea tray at her elbow and merely the usual embarrassments of her family around her. She fended off Felix with his tea and a plate of his own - not, she noticed, one of the best plates. Her staff were endlessly practical. Jessamy took his with a word of thanks and made Felix lie back down on the other sofa.
Alverstoke was looking thoughtful, but he accepted his tea with a smile, though he refused the biscuits she offered him.
"If I might trouble you for a macaroon," he said. She looked from him to the little plate of almond biscuits and burst out laughing.
"I'm sorry," she gasped, "I don't mean to find it funny, but I couldn't help but wonder who the macaroons were for. No one in our household likes them. Here, have the plate."
He took the plate from her and put it at his elbow, discouraging Lufra's attempts to investigate it with his foot. It was a homely scene, one she couldn't have imagined when Vernon first stalked into her shabby drawing room and looked at her in such a superior way. The thought of it almost made her want to laugh again, but she took her bottom lip between her teeth and resolutely tried to think of something else. It had been a while since she'd thought of how detestably cold he'd been, and she could find it amusing now, though it had been insufferably provoking then.
"I'm impressed your household managed to discern my tastes so well," was all Vernon said now, though he was smiling too. Frederica wanted to kiss him again. She met his eyes and saw the gleam in his that she thought maybe meant he wanted to kiss her too. Feeling rather breathless, she averted her gaze.
"Felix is tired," announced Jessamy. He shushed Felix's protests with an angry glare and some unsubtle hand gestures. "We're going to take our tea to his room."
"I am not tired," Felix said.
"Felix, I think that Jessamy means he finds himself unable to support the unmanly spectacle of me making sheep's eyes at your sister," said Vernon. "Do take pity on him and let him recover his appetite in private."
Frederica nearly laughed out loud again, both at the repressed smile in Vernon's voice, and at the revolted face Felix pulled. She managed to control her face with an effort.
"Well, if it's like that," said Felix. "Can we take the jam tarts?"
"And the fruit cake," said Frederica, piling everything up on a tray.
"I'll carry it, snatchpastry," said Jessamy. He shoved Felix out the door with Lufra following, shutting it behind him with just a trace of a shy, embarrassed smile lingering around his mouth.
Frederica managed to keep a straight face until she met Vernon's gaze. Then she laughed again, and he chuckled too, before putting down his tea cup and gathering her close. She hastily put down her own tea. It was getting more comfortable already, to be close to Vernon and to touch him, and she looped one arm around his neck while the other touched his cheek, before he took it and pressed a kiss into her palm.
He kissed her lips, softly, once, then again, and Frederica kissed him back, harder. She loved the way his arms tightened around her and daringly rested her free hand on his knee.
"Frederica," Vernon said, though she couldn't guess what he was planning to follow it with as she kissed him again. This time, Vernon cradled her gently, let her set the pace and the tone, and Frederica tried some of the things he'd done, when he'd kissed her before. He touched her neck, smoothing his fingers very softly over her collarbones, and murmured endearments between her kisses. At last she drew back, breathless and smiling, and met his eyes again.
"How soon can we get married, did you say?" she asked. Laughing, he took her hand in his again.
"It can't be soon enough," he said. "Before you leave for Alver - tomorrow! Perhaps we can see if Charles can arrange for us to marry at that church of his; it has so many happy associations."
"You are quite detestable," said Frederica, sure that her eyes were dancing with amusement, the laughter she could see echoed in his face.
"As soon as possible, then," he said.
"Yes," she agreed. "Yes."
Frederica rose swiftly as the door opened and Buddle ushered Vernon's sisters into the room.
"My dear," said Augusta, sweeping forward and taking Frederica's hand in a most overpoweringly gracious handshake. "Frederica. Allow me to wish you most happy."
"Thank you," said Frederica, ushering Augusta to the best chair and seeing her settled. Augusta was obviously very pleased at the news of the engagement, judging by her regal air of satisfaction. Louisa came forward rather more stiffly, and her hand was reluctantly extended. She, obviously, was less pleased, with her mouth firmly set in disapproving lines.
"And I also," she said, grudgingly. Frederica showed her to a chair, a rather less comfortable one that nevertheless looked imposing, knowing that Louisa would perch on the edge anyway. They accepted tea and Frederica's offer of refreshment, with Louisa chewing on a piece of shortbread as if it was cardboard.
Frederica was no fool, and she could shrewdly guess at the reasons behind Louisa's stiffness. She knew that Louisa had extorted money out of Vernon for years, and also knew that this was much less likely to continue now. On the other hand, Louisa could now be sure Frederica wasn't going to worm her way into Carlton's regard and be presented to her as a daughter-in-law. More hideous though, as her brother's wife, Frederica would outrank her. The country cousin she'd been condescending to all these months would, in a stroke, become far more important than she was herself.
Frederica saw all these emotions and more play out on Louisa's face, and felt momentarily sympathy for her, but was far more amused. She wished for a moment that Vernon was here to appreciate the look on Louisa's face, then had to resolutely repress a smile as she thought of what he might say. Terrible though it was, she could understand why he had little time for Louisa. Frederica was just glad that she'd presumably gotten all her spleen vented somewhere else; possibly to the long-suffering Carlton.
"I have never been a believer in long engagements, " said Augusta, having eaten her own shortbread with every sign of condescending relish. "So I am delighted that you and Vernon will be not drawing it out."
"It seemed pointless to wait, ma'am, when we were already planning to spend the summer at Alver." Frederica found it rather freeing to be doing exactly what they pleased, without thought of reputation or propriety. She knew this swift marriage, from Alver, would be scandalous, but she found that she agreed with Vernon, and other people's opinions on this were worthless.
"It has been rather neglected these last few years," said Augusta, never one to mince words about other people's failings. "I am certain you will begin to put it back in order. But surely you do not go there immediately?"
"We have put off our departure by one day," Frederica said, "but we will marry from Alver shortly; I hope we will see you both there once the date is set. Then Vernon and I will spend a few days at his place in Devon before returning for the summer."
Augusta majestically ignored the stifled choke from her sister. Frederica glanced at her momentarily to see her glaring at the shortbread in her hand as if it had personally offended her. Mystified, for what could there possibly be in Devon to offend Louisa, at least more than she was already offended, she turned back to Augusta.
"Louisa, it's the place in Devon that adjoins Buxted's seat, is it not?" Augusta smiled with great sweetness and took another piece of shortbread. Frederica stifled a grin at the solution to the mystery, and listened with great politeness as Augusta began to reminisce about her own wedding. Louisa sat mostly silent and hatchet-faced, and even Frederica, with the best will in the world, could not find it in her heart to be sorry for her.
Lucretia seemed to float through the door and across the floor, solicitously guided by her devoted Harriet. Frederica, startled by her entrance, for she was not expecting visitors, managed to command herself enough to murmur a greeting. She shook Lucretia's hand and let her be tenderly handed into a seat before greeting Chloë with a warm handshake and the ease of friendship. Chloë and Diana at once went to sit by Charis on the long sofa, leaving Frederica to offer Harriet a chair within easy reach of her wilting cousin.
"I was happy to hear that my sister was able to be of service to you in your recent indisposition," said Frederica. "I hope only that you have not done damage to your health in venturing out today."
"I felt I must make the effort," Lucretia said, "no matter how perilous. If I am very careful, perhaps I shall make it home with no ill effects."
"Shall I ring for tea? Or ask Hurley to bring you a posset? She brews an excellent one from an old family recipe."
"Alas, I am too delicate for most possets," said Lucretia, with just a shade of reproach in her voice. Frederica at once agreed, without the slightest tremor of amusement in her voice, and rang for some hot water instead. Lucretia was so ethereal in appearance, so vague and delicate, but Frederica had realised very early in their acquaintance that there was a will of iron under those dainty wrappings.
Conversation lapsed as the tray was brought in, though Harriet was desired to wrap a light shawl about Lucretia's shoulders, against a possible, treacherous draught. Frederica supposed she was supposed to feel guilty at daring to have a draught in her drawing room.
"Dear Charis was an invaluable help to me," Lucretia said. "She has such sensibility, such nobility of feeling, that I must feel we are kindred spirits."
Frederica quailed inwardly at the thought of Charis ending up like Lucretia, but she remembered Charis's well-hidden stubborn streak of commonsense. She agreed with Lucretia that it was, indeed, fortunate, that Charis was able to discern the true need behind Lucretia's brave front. She was glad, a little, that Vernon wasn't present, to curl his lip at such folly; she was finding it hard enough to maintain a sympathetic air of interest already.
"Indeed, I have grown quite fond of her," Lucretia said. "She is already such a true sister to Chloë and Diana - look at them, such darling creatures - and I am sure she will be a true daughter to me."
Frederica agreed with great calmness to all of this, and more, as Lucretia sighed and plaintively expounded on a great many things, including how the marriage between Charis and her adored Endymion would be the culmination of all her hopes for him. Frederica smiled as Lucretia moved on, without a pause, to her fond hopes and best wishes for her and Vernon.
"My dearest cousin, he has been," she declared, "and to see him settled will be such a satisfaction." Frederica was sure, though Lucretia would never admit it, that she must be feeling rather chagrined at the whole turn of events. She was another one who could no longer look to Vernon for financial rescue. Frederica didn't doubt, however, that Charis's gift for economy would make itself felt in Lucretia's household.
Finally, she rose to leave, drifting to the door like a windblown rose, shepherded tenderly down the stairs and out to the carriage Owen had summoned. Frederica dramatically reclined on the sofa, exhausted, as if she, not Lucretia, was in need of restorative draughts and drops, even though there was no one present to see her perform.
The door swung open and Frederica heard the familiar rattle of tea cups.
"Oh, Hurley, how did you know I needed tea after that?" she asked.
"I've often wished for a restorative glass of brandy after a visit from our dear cousin," said Vernon, holding the door for Mrs Hurley.
Frederica shot up into a sitting position again. Leaving the tray on the table, Mrs Hurley saw herself out and Vernon shut the door behind her.
"You wretch," exclaimed Frederica. "Were you here the whole time?"
"Yes," said Vernon, "but Buddle, who is really the best butler I have ever met, though pray do not tell Wicken so, informed me that Mr Felix was in need of my company."
"Just to avoid your cousin!" said Frederica.
"Just so," agreed Vernon. "But at least I stopped. When I saw the Jevington town carriage being led up and down outside your house the other day, I regret to say that I realised that my greys really, really, were not able to tolerate standing in the sharp wind."
"In this heat! I should box your ears," said Frederica, not mincing her words. Vernon gave a shout of laughter and pulled her up from the couch. The kiss he gave her was thorough, and Frederica couldn't stay angry at him while clinging to his shoulders returning the kiss.
"That would be a good look, arriving at church with bruises from my future wife," he said, at last. He drew Frederica down to sit on his knee and she kissed him again, teasingly.
"Well, perhaps I'll wait until the honeymoon," Frederica said. She looped one arm around his shoulders and leaned her head on his. It seemed impossible that they would marry, yet all her preparations were made, bags packed, the household ready to leave for Alver, and there for them to marry. She'd lived through so many changes in her life, but still wasn't quite sure, not quite, that she was ready for this one. Vernon lifted his face to hers, and she saw there all the calm certainty she needed. She smiled, suddenly struck by just how impossible this fairy-tale was.
"What is it?" Vernon asked.
"I was just thinking what a very unlikely Prince Charming you are," she said.
"Oh, were you?" he asked. "And you, I am sure, make an excellent Cinderella." He tipped her unceremoniously off his knee and onto the sofa, and Frederica did her best to stifle her giggles.
"Wretch," she said. His lips claimed hers in a kiss that held all the passion she could want, and one hand slid up to cup one of her breasts. His hand was hot through the thin cambric, and she squirmed against him. At last he pulled himself away, both of them breathing hard, and they slowly put themselves back together again with small touches and light kisses.
"I'm glad we're marrying soon," Vernon said. "I waited a long time to be sure of my mind - and even longer to be sure of yours, wretch! - but I don't want to wait any longer. Not even Restorative Pork Jelly can put me off."
"I'm glad," said Frederica, simply. She kissed Vernon one last time, before the thundering approach of footsteps on the stairs told her their moment of peace was over. She didn't mind. She would have a lifetime to collect those moments.
"I say," said Felix, as he burst in and took a look at the tea tray, "must we have macaroons all the time now?"